Consider the Source

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, January 8, 2002


Washington DC suburbs, Texas Top List for Contaminated Water

Washington- The first ever nationwide assessment of chlorination byproducts in drinking water, released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), shows that more than one hundred thousand women are at elevated risk of miscarriage or of having children with birth defects because of chlorination byproducts (CBPs) in municipal tap water. CBPs are formed when chlorine reacts with organic material in the water. The Maryland Suburbs of Washington, DC lead the list for the number of pregnancies at risk in individual communities or water systems, while Texas tops the list for number of pregnancies at risk statewide.

Chlorine is added to tap water to kill microbes. But chlorine also reacts with organic matter, including sewage, animal waste, and soil and plant material that comes from run-off caused by agriculture and urban sprawl to form harmful CBPs. At least ten major peer-reviewed epidemiological studies have shown elevated risks of birth defects and miscarriages for women drinking chlorinated tap water. In addition, the U.S. EPA has estimated that CBPs cause up to 9,300 cases of bladder cancer nationwide every year.

The report estimates that from 1996 though 2001, more than 16 million people in 1,258 communities were served water contaminated with CBPs for at least 12 months at levels higher than a new legal limit that took effect January 1st. A handful of large cities put the greatest number of people at risk Ð Washington, DC suburbs, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh suburbs, and San Francisco, but more than 1,100 small water systems also reported potentially dangerous contaminant levels. The highest levels of CBPs, from five to 10 times the level allowed by the new standard, were reported by small rural drinking water utilities.

"Dirty source water going into the treatment plant means water contaminated with chlorination byproducts coming out of your tap," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's Research Director. "The solution is cleaning up our lakes, rivers, and streams, not just bombarding our water supply with chlorine."

EWG and U.S. PIRG called for immediate action to clean up the lakes and rivers that provide tap water by reducing the soil erosion and the nutrient and animal waste runoff from farms that increase the need for chlorination. The groups also recommended a more ambitious effort to address the long-term health threats of chlorination byproducts. The Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress is an opportunity to fund farmland conservation programs that could protect waterways, curb sprawl, and clean up America's tap water.

The groups also recommend the creation of a nationwide health-tracking network, coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The network would monitor Americans' exposure to pollution and would track birth defects, miscarriages, and other diseases linked to pollution, like cancer and asthma. "One of the main reasons health standards are so weak is that neither state nor federal health authorities adequately track miscarriages, birth defects and a host of other diseases where pollution is a suspected cause," said Jeremiah Bauman of U.S. PIRG. In December, Congress appropriated $17.5 million dollars for pilot environmental health tracking projects.

In the meantime, there are some simple steps that pregnant women can take to reduce the risks posed by chlorination byproducts. "First, pregnant women should drink plenty of water," said Houlihan. "To reduce exposure to CBPs use a carbon filter, especially in the summer, when CBP levels tend to spike. Pregnant women also might want to switch to non-chlorinated bottled water. And, they should take shorter showers and baths, since CBPs can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin," Houlihan added.


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